Beauden Barrett, Damien McKenzie, Stephen Larkham. The first thing we have to understand, when considering the All Blacks running ten is what all three of these men have in common.
Three of the most naturally talented attacking flyhalves in professional rugby. All having achieved great things.
So what do they have in common?
They’re all penetrators and elusive runners, we know that. But it is their conversion from 15 to 10 that interests me.
This conversion equipped them with decision making and distribution skills to play 10, with the added ability to read a game through a different lens. This adds a multitude of problems to the defence.
I believe the precursor to the All Black philosophy in their 10s is Larkham. Were it not for Larkham moving to flyhalf, I don’t believe the Wallabies would have won the 1999 world cup. A big statement, but one I stick by. The ability for Rod MacQueen to play the game he wanted exploded when he made that change.
Larkham’s ability to glide onto the ball at the line and make quick plays at 10 was unparalleled at the time. He would drift out naturally, his gas for the outside break forcing the defence to commit to him.
A fullback at 10, not only were his hands brilliant, he could get through incredibly small gaps in the line. If players committed on him, he would switch to Tim Horan on the scissors angle running at the inside shoulder of the 10, or as shown above, run the inside option.
If the inside had numbered to cover protect the 10, the 100kg outside centre in Daniel Herbert would run a hard line off Larkham, making gainline, or looping to unlock the wide channels with the Wallaby back 3.
Committing players as a runner, Larkham created space for other dangerous players and gave the defence too many worrying choices to choose from. The late interplay he provided gave them the best chance to exploit the space created from this hesitancy.
If the options off him interested the defence and created space as below, he himself could exploit it with his fullback pedigree.
All Blacks philosophy
This, for me, is the philosophy behind Steve Hansen’s selection of Barrett and McKenzie at 10. It’s a constant cycle between creating space for your runners, and them creating space for you.
The key being your ability to exploit it. The All Blacks don’t want a distributor who only goes through the motions at 10. They want a fast, instinctive attacking threat. The 15, is the perfect breeding ground for such a player.
The defences’ desperation to cover the lethal options within the All Blacks, can create space for the 10’s to use. Hansen and co. want to make sure their 10’s, like Larkham, have the 15’s ability to exploit it. For me, this is very shrewd.
The All Blacks, are increasingly operating in a 1-3-3-1 system.
These pods are comprised of incredibly powerful forwards. This means the defence will constrict from the outside to cover the targets of these pods. This is not always the case, but as seen below, it does happen.
This is possibly a slightly odd analogy, however, I believe that it describes stacking, which is a key concept. Key to the All Blacks attack and why the All Blacks often have acres of space for their wingers to exploit for a try.
If a shelf at the store is 2 metres long, and on it, you have 15 bottles of milk evenly spaced there is always a gap between each. There aren’t enough bottles to fill the shelf. If you have 1-15 evenly lined up, and you move 7 to the left so 1-7 are stacked up right next to each other, between 7-8, there will be a bigger gap.
If you move 8 in next to 7, there will be more space between 8-9, if you drag in 9, there will be even more space between 9-10. So on and so forth. Remember this concept for later.
Back to it
The ball will often flow through the 1-3-3-1 pods during the attack. The defensive system expects this and like the bottles, stack up on them. Within the pods themselves, options such as pop passes, are often dealt with as per this constricted defence. However, as the defence has constricted, like the bottles, the gap on the outside is created.
The 10 and 15, are often stationed behind these pods and linked together in terms of organising the attack. If the 15 is unavailable, a playmaking back will fill his place. The principle is that they are perfectly positioned to play second receiver and take the pullback pass once the three-pod has constricted the defence, opening the gap.
With the speed and acceleration the All Blacks 10 possesses, they are then able to make a break at this gap themselves before it closes.
This is where the All Blacks are taking their game and why the 10 needs to be an elusive, fast runner. Making 15 experience perfect for them.
If a team were to follow the 1-3-3-1 structure and only use forwards, they would have 4 channels of attack across the field. The All Blacks want more exploitable channels in between these pods.
How do they do this?
The answer – being incredible skillsets and speed – is fairly straightforward, but the execution is anything but.
I want to take you back to Larkham and, remember, that the All Blacks want a 10 who can create space for his runners, but can exploit space created for him.
Let’s show you where they’re taking their game.
The first three-pod has taken the ball flat, stacking the defence. The defence outside of this pod, is wary of the All Black second three-pod therefore, like the bottles, they’ve not come in as they expect McKenzie to pass.
McKenzie with his speed exploits the created gap before it closes. Resulting in a try.
Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown stack the defence, and pass to McKenzie. Ball in two hands, he runs to exploit the gap created. Mathiue Bastareaud cannot get across in time, allowing McKenzie through.
We see McKenzie again, attempt to exploit the space next to the stacked players. Tyson Frizell attempts to run a line to assist him, but this time he is caught.
Jack Goodhue then steps in behind the second three-pod, to offer the second receiver option if the defence stacks. It does not, and the three-pod goes to contact.
Barrett is instructed along similar lines.
Whilst they weren’t as effective, we can see he and McKenzie have been instructed to attack here, with their pods providing the space for them to do so.
Back to Damien
As we’ve seen, we know that the pods create the gap for the 10, with Barrett and McKenzie both having the speed and instinct to target here. However, the 10, also needs to create space for his team. Here, McKenzie does just that.
Here we see the stacking by the three-pod, who release McKenzie. He takes the ball to the line, targeting the transition zone. Rieko Ioane tracks him, as an alternate option to target here.
McKenzie sees it’s not on and draws Wesley Fofana, opening the space outside him. His pod next to him are so flat, they could run into this space as its being created. Instead, he spins the pass wide with metres made.
This tactic of bringing man after man in with runners is tailor-made for the speed of the New Zealand 10’s. If it’s not on in the transition zone, they use the stacking principle; The 10 targets the gap between defender’s 4 and 5, drawing 5, and putting a flat runner into the 5-6 gap.
That runner draws in 6, then passes to a runner running hard at the larger 6-7 Gap. Eventually, they make the break. The principle is shown below.
Stacking has long been a philosophy of the New Zealand attack, but its initiation by 10 targeting the created transition zone is new. This is only done if they’re fast enough to threaten it before it closes. Once through, they implement classic All Blacks support play. If the gap closes and the break isn’t made; they employ stacking, putting runners into gaps as they appear, or go wide.
This makes Barrett and McKenzie the established 10s for the All Blacks.
Nearly all other 10s in the world who receives the back pass, passes immediately to their wide men, allowing the defence time to drift and nullify the threat. Barrett and McKenzie don’t. They have the speed and vision to run these lines, stopping the early drift, and drawing even more men to close the gap.
They then release their outside men into the holes in the line as they appear, or go wide, having created the space.
The trick is knowing when to use each. This is particularly true for McKenzie, whose wide passes in the past have cost New Zealand when catch and pass would’ve worked better.
This dynamic requires the qualities of a back three player, with the decision making and distribution of a 10. Their current blueprint of the 10, and shows going forward, why Hansen has picked Barrett, McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga.